Any doubts around President Joe Biden’s running for reelection were dispelled by his reversal on D.C.’s new crime bill, a political punch that blindsided Washington D.C. and House Democrats. In an attempt to stem anger at this betrayal, Biden described his decision in policy terms—he simply couldn’t stand by and let D.C. enact lower penalties for violent crime. But we need only look at Biden’s own criminal justice record to see that the policies in this bill aren’t his problem. It’s the politics, plain and simple.
Although this drama only recently burst into the national news, D.C. policymakers have spent years trying to figure out how to update a criminal code that’s largely the same as it was a century ago. The resulting bill is enormous, though most of the focus has landed squarely on reductions to penalties for certain violent crime, including carjacking and murder. The bill sailed through the D.C. city council, which then overrode a veto by Mayor Muriel Bowser in a 12-1 vote.
In any other place in America, that would be the end of it. In Washington, D.C., however, Congress gets the final say, with the authority to reverse any new legislation passed by D.C. city leaders. The GOP-led House did exactly that with the D.C. crime bill, even garnering 31 Democratic votes along the way. Shortly thereafter, President Biden put an end to any speculation about its future by signaling that he, too, would support the reversal.
While Biden’s team tried to convince the public he was taking a principled stand to keep Americans in the capital safe, his own previous statements show otherwise.
Take, for example, his specific claim that he doesn’t support “lowering penalties for carjacking.”
The bill alters carjacking penalties in two big ways. First, it eliminates the existing mandatory minimum sentences attached to it. Second, it lowers the maximum possible penalties for carjacking from 21 to 18 years in prison, and for armed carjacking from 40 to 24 years.
Clearly, President Biden’s problem cannot be the elimination of the mandatory minimum since his campaign stated unequivocally that “Biden supports an end to mandatory minimums.” So, the issue must be those maximum sentences. Yet, if 18 years for carjacking or 24 years for armed carjacking were such problems for the president, where is the president’s outrage over his beloved home state of Delaware, for example, which has eight-year and 25-year maximums, respectively?
Perhaps his concerns relate less to the actual sentences and more to the general idea of lowering them. However, President Biden stated during his campaign that he supports cutting the incarcerated population by over 50%. Given that about 2/3 of prisoners are in for violent offenses, where exactly does he think that reduction is coming from? He’s not made it clear where he plans to focus these cuts to accomplish this goal.
The truth is that President Biden watches the news and has plenty of aides who can tell him which way the wind is blowing on crime. Americans still want to improve the criminal justice system—one poll in October 2022 found that 8 in 10 Americans support criminal justice reform. But Americans have also seen violent crime rise in many places over the last few years and want real action to address it. A bill that eliminates the possibility of a life sentence for premeditated murder misses this moment entirely.
While many have used the D.C. crime bill to attack all efforts to reform the criminal justice system, it’s folly to believe that doggedly upholding the status quo or mindlessly raising sentences will do much more to combat violent crime. Sentences, whether higher or lower, tend to only affect crime at the margins. Instead, the key is to focus on prevention and deterrence efforts that can actually alter the odds of or opportunity for criminal behavior. Measures that improve clearance rates, for example, target the small group of people driving violent crime in most places, or simply speed up the delivery of consequences for criminal behavior.
Chances are that President Biden will trot out his D.C. crime bill stance in his ensuing campaign for reelection as proof of his commitment to end violent crime. However, Americans should review the reality behind his statements and scrutinize his record in its entirety. It’s a purely political act divorced from the reforms in the bill and unrelated to the kinds of policies that can actually help bring down violent crime.